Duke of York’s Theatre, London ****
Runs: 2hrs 30mins incl 15 min interval
Review of perf seen May 3, 2019:
It’s rather wonderful that fully fledged stage classics can still turn up in the West End without having first started out life in the subsidised sector. Once upon a time, that would have been thanks to Michael Codron. Now Sonia Friedman is the one who still boldly goes where few others dare to follow. In this day and age, that’s no mean achievement.
Mind you, with Ibsen, as with Chekhov and probably Pinter, you’re on a fairly safe wicket. It could all go horribly wrong but Ian Rickson’s production in Duncan Macmillan’s new adaptation brings Ibsen’s dense moral and political tragedy safely into port.
Full-blooded melodrama and grown up debate streams across from stage to audience. Little wonder that at curtain call, an audience that contained its fair share of young along with the usual middle-aged, middle-walletted West End theatregoer, rose and cheered.
What a terrific play this Rosmersholm turns out to be. As Rickson points out, it’s not seen that often. But given the turbulent times in which we live, it’s one that certainly speaks with particular vehemence to us today with its themes of inheritance, privilege, egalitarianism, the toxic relationship between politics and the media, childlessness, feminism and much more besides.
You’d think with such a list of contending issues the play would either get bogged down in unnecessary detail or distended with its own competing, contradictory streams.
The wonder is – and how much this is due to Macmillan’s svelte adaptation and the combined forces of Rickson and designer Rae Smith it’s hard to pinpoint – but this Rosmersholm emerges as a fascinating competition and exploration between traditional values, nascent socialism and sexual emancipation with, in the end, each and every side compromised.
None, as Lear would say, escape whipping from Ibsen’s clear-eyed observation of human frailty, its dreams, its needs, its limitations and the Past as an ever active presence in the Present.
Rosmersholm is indeed, Rosmers home, the seat of two hundred years of patronage and public achievement. Portraits of illustrious ancestors line the walls of a sitting room where a year ago, Beth, the chatelaine and wife of Rosmer – a lapsed pastor – walked out across a footbridge and into the river.
Scandinavian symbolism weighs heavily in Ibsen’s imagination. The spectre of `The White Horse of Rosmersholm’ is raised from the outset – a sign of death, though as Rebecca West, the young companion brought into the household to care for the unstable Beth comments, it could equally be a sign of change.
Change does indeed come with the major catalyst arising from the imminence of an election in which radicalism, oh horror, may be on the point of snatching victory. The forces of reactionary status quo, embodied in Rosmer’s old friend, brother-in-law and pillar of society, Governor Kroll – a man who in words all too familiar to us `loves his country’ – is determined to stop such rot.
But in trying to enlist his good friend, Rosmer to his side by making him editor of a newspaper he and friends have taken control of, he stumbles upon some unsavoury truths: Rosmer has been `tainted’ also by the new radicalism, encouraged by Rebecca, a woman whose belief in freedom – political and personal – is unwavering.
As with so much of Ibsen, his drama becomes not only a political pulpit but a steady, painful revelation of hidden, dark secrets incurred by the strictures put upon individuals by social convention.
Ibsen wanted to splinter those conventions and expose their corrosive effects on the personality wherever he saw them. Way ahead of his time, he recognised the battle between psychological imperatives and social pressures that bar people from achieving happiness and joy.
Rosemersholm ends in tragedy with two people trying to change but unable to make the final push for freedom, caught in the thrall of love, seen in Ibsen’s eyes as an inhibitor to political commitment and above all, action. But also the shackles of the past. Do we ever escape them?
As Rebecca and Rosmer, Hayley Atwell and Tom Burke provide plenty of guts and thunder as a young firebrand on the one hand and a pinched waverer yearning to be free of past chains (Rosmer) on the other. Lucy Briers creates a quiet centre as housekeeper Mrs Helseth with a selfless ensemble of silent staff members around her.
Giles Terera (late of Hamilton fame) makes Andreas Kroll a towering figure of provincial probity whilst Peter Wight’s Ulrik Brendel is yet another Ibsen example of idealism gone to waste.
I’d have liked to see a little more acknowledgement given in visual terms to those dark, mythic forces that lie so near the surface of the Scandinavian consciousness.
But that reservation aside, this is a cracker of an evening. Highly recommended for anyone with an appetite for seeing our own times refracted through the prism of over a hundred years ago but lucidly, grippingly updated. Terrific
By Henrik Ibsen
In a new adaptation by Duncan Macmillan
Rebecca West: Hayley Atwell
Mrs Helseth: Lucy Briers
John Rosmer: Tom Burke
Peter Mortensgaard: Jake Fairbrother
Andreas Kroll: Giles Terera
Ulrik Brendel: Peter Wight
House Staff, Understudy Andreas Kroll, Ulrik Brendel: Gavin Antony
House Staff, Understudy Rebecca West: Ebony Buckle
House Staff, Understudy John Rosmer, Peter Mortensgaard: Piers Hampton
House Staff, Understudy Mrs Helseth: Maureen Hibbert
House Staff: Robyn Lovell
House Staff: Alice Vilanculo
Director: Ian Rickson
Designer: Rae Smith
Lighting Designer: Neil Austin
Composer: Stephen Warbeck
Sound Designer: Gregory Clarke
Casting Director: Amy Ball CDG Lisa Makin
Hair, Wigs & Make-Up: Campbell Young Associates
Movement: Imogen Knight
Voice: Patsy Rodenburg
Assistant Director: Monique Touko
Associate Designer: Mike Lees
Literal Translator: Karin and Anne Bamborough
Costume Supervisor: Poppy Hall
Presented by Sonia Friedman Productions with Brenda Leff, Colin Callender, John Gore, Bradford W Edgerton Living Trust, 1001 Nights Productions, Burnt Umber Productions and Tulchin Bartner Productions
First perf of this production of Rosmersholm at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London on April 24, 2019
Review published on this site, May 5, 2019